Cris Jones talks The Death and Life of Otto Bloom on the eve of its MIFF debut

27 July, 2016 by Brian Karlovsky

Xavier Samuel in The Death and Life of Otto Bloom.


What is the film about?

It’s the chronicle of a character named Otto Bloom who experiences time backwards. Not in a Benjamin Button way; he’s not ageing backwards. But he remembers the future and knows nothing about the past. So it’s about his life and the great love of his life. It’s a kind of palindromic love story. But it’s also a film which doesn’t fit neatly into one genre. It starts out as a mystery, and it’s also told in a documentary format, so there is that element as well. But I wouldn’t call it a mockumentary. It’s not a comedy although there are funny moments in [it]. Basically at the start of the film the question is posed: who is Otto Bloom? Then in a series of eight chapters you get eight different answers to that question. 

How did you come up with the idea for the film? 

It happened in a funny way, as these things do. It actually all came to me from a letter by Albert Einstein that he’d written to the family of a friend of his who’d recently died. He was talking about time being an illusion and therefore death not being the thing we think it is; that every moment in time is happening at once and even though we will not get to see this person again who we’ve lost, they’re still out there and they’re still with you somewhere in time. That to me was such an inspiring, hopeful message. I wondered if there was some way of putting that message into a story of some kind, and maybe a film. 

What were the major challenges during the writing process?

The major challenge was that it’s told very much in Errol Morris [style]. Morris has these interviews that are cut together and you very often don’t hear the question, it’s just people talking. He builds a collage out of these snippets of people’s conversations. In the film we also have dramatisations and faux-archive footage and animation motion graphics; a lot of different elements. But a lot of the time you don’t actually have scenes where there are two people talking to each other. The major challenge for me [with this approach] was that you don’t get the flow out of starting a scene and then seeing it through to the end. Because this is literally cutting from one person saying one thing to someone else saying another, it was about [finding] a rhythm for that. That was the hugest challenge and the thing that took the most time; it was a very unusual script to write. 

Was it a difficult project to get up?

We actually had good fortune with this one. Melanie [Coombs] and Alicia [Brown] and Mish [Armstrong] [are] the three producers with Optimism Film. We had been developing another project for a while, and unfortunately that one didn’t quite get up. But we kind of bounced back, and I decided, well, let’s try to make something that we can make quickly and cheaply. We were very fortunate that Screen Australia funded the development of the script and the treatments; the script didn’t have to go through too many drafts. Then Screen Australia, Film Victoria, the MIFF Premiere Fund and also Bonsai Films, the local distribution company run by Jonathan Page, all invested in the film. It feels [like] it’s an extension of this other project that we were developing.

What was the budget? 

$1.3 million AUD.

How did the cast come together?

Again, just really good fortune. I very much wrote the central role of Otto for Xavier Samuel, and so we sent him the treatment before we had a script and he very kindly attached himself to the project just based on the 15-page outline. That was very helpful for us in getting the project into development and getting it financed. In some ways the central role is actually not Otto himself, but the character of Ada, the neuropsychologist who discovers this man with this strange condition. The film is largely the story of their romance and of their life together.

How did you come to cast mother and daughter Rachel Ward and Matilda Brown as two versions of the same character?

That was a tricky role because we see Ada in the present day giving interviews about her life with Otto and his past. Then we also see her in the past in the form of super-8 home movies and archive footage. It was a real challenge to cast one character at two very different stages in life. I  thought that Rachel Ward would be terrific to play the present day Ada, but I was aware that she’d been turning down acting roles for 10 years because she is a very talented and successful director now. And I remembered I’d seen Matilda Brown, her daughter, in a short film Rachel directed in 2003 called Martha’s New Coat. So suddenly the thought popped it in to my head to get Rachel to play present day Ada and Matilda to play the Ada from the past. I remember being very nervous meeting Rachel for the first time, because I didn’t know if she was going to want to do the film or not. And she was the loveliest person in the world, loved the script and was very excited to do it. Suddenly everything fell into place at the last minute. It was stressful at the time, but it couldn’t have worked out better because those three key actors, Xavier and Rachel and Matilda, were very generous and such joys to work with. Film shoots are often not the most enjoyable places in the world, but we really had a lot of fun together. It was just a wonderful experience.

What expectations do you have for the film in terms of festival and theatrical release?

Well, obviously it’s a great start to be opening MIFF. There couldn’t be a better way to get the ball rolling. I feel like MIFF has always been my home as a film maker and kind of my family [short films The Funk, MIFF 2008 and Excursion, MIFF 2003]. So not only is it a lovely experience in that way, but we’ll get a lot of exposure that we otherwise couldn’t afford. It’s a very positive start.